Ugliness is not a virtue
Admit it. When Susan Boyle strode onto the stage wearing that 1978 frock, you were booing too. She looked an absolute sight. Bushy eyebrows, messy grey hair, flabby biceps – she’d make Hagrid a good wife. So why the guilt, just because it turns out she can sing?
First, it was just Piers Morgan. “I would just like to apologise to Susan”, he wrote in a recent Mirror column. “It’s long overdue… it was an amazing performance.” Then the blonde one followed his lead, chirping, “It’s a very shallow thing to say, but obviously the minute she walked on, we and the audience completely judged her on her appearance.”
Finally the Guardian pitched in. Tanya Gold complained that we don’t judge Sir Alan Sugar for looking like “a burst bag of flour” or look down on Gordon Ramsay for having a face like “a dried-up riverbed”. If men are “allowed to be ugly and talented”, she wrote, then booing Susan Boyle was sexist and showed that, really, we are ugly and “Britain’s Got Malice”.
Well frankly, I don’t buy it. Until she sang, we were right to boo Susan Boyle. The ITV show, despite all its tabloid flaws, is a talent contest. Judging people who choose to showcase themselves on stage is what Piers, Simon, Amanda, you and me are supposed to do. Presented with an unkempt middle-aged woman, we reacted in the same way that we would if Sir Alan turned up on The Apprentice wearing an old suit and holey, worn shoes.
Let’s face it: appearances matter. You wouldn’t want your airline pilot to appear unshaven, or for your surgeon to have dirty fingernails – so why would you want an ugly stage-performer who wiggles her hips when asked her (47 year-old) age? You wouldn’t, of course, so you booed.
But then she sang. Now I’m no expert on Susan Boyle’s type of music – in fact, I loathe musicals. It was clear, though, that the judges were impressed, and that the audience loved her. She quickly became the underdog, an inspiration, and then, thanks to YouTube and Oprah Winfrey, the favourite to win the show. In doing this, she showed not that Britain was malicious or morally ugly, but simply that, on this occasion, we had got it wrong.
In fact, by far the worst reaction came from Simon Cowell a week after the show was broadcast. Susan Boyle had been spotted post-makeover, with plucked eyebrows, lipstick and some sort of trendy Burberry scarf. “Get yourself together”, the shiny-toothed celebrity snapped, adding that she should “come back as who you are, not who you want to be.”
What utter nonsense. If Susan Boyle wants to be the next Elaine Page, and if she wants to wear Burberry, I think Simon Cowell should let her. Because middle-aged woman who dress badly are usually very unhappy. Look, we’ve all seen What Not to Wear. The women who wear old clothes and don’t bother with makeup are usually the ones that – in floods of tears – admit that they have been wearing that shoulder-padded blazer since their husband left them in 1986. Or that their favourite woolly hat was a Christmas present from a recently deceased parent.
They’re traumatised, for one reason or another, and their image often seems to express that. Only when Trinny and Susannah sort them out is their confidence restored.
We should be impressed, then, by Susan Boyle’s strength of character. Not only has she proved her judges wrong; she’s also proved that they can’t contain or control her. Ironically, by booing her we have helped her to regain confidence in herself.
This applies on a more general level. Some Head-teachers are now afraid to hold competitive sports days, for fear of alienating the child who comes last in the egg-and-spoon race. They would rather have a non-competitive atmosphere in which there are no winners or losers.
Really, though, the ruthless nature of competition is as good for kids as it is for adults. It is only by being booed that we realise we need to get better – or we realise egg-and-spoon races aren’t our scene.
I had all this in mind, last weekend, when I followed the Roses tournament against Lancaster University. Though they undoubtedly tried their best, and in some sports were an admirable opposition, we convincingly thrashed them. And, just occasionally, we booed them. They’ll thank us for it one day.